Ancient mapmakers used to designate mysterious or perilous geography with the legend “Here There Be Dragons.” In today’s pop culture, the most long-awaited dragons aren’t here just yet. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, director Peter Jackson only afforded a brief glimpses of Smaug, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ancient, avaricious reptile. Part two of The Hobbit trilogy, subtitled The Desolation of Smaug (due in theaters Dec. 13, 2013) should provide a showcase for one of literature’s most famous monsters, with “Sherlock’s” Benedict Cumberbatch providing the voice and motion-capture movements a la Andy Serkis’ Gollum. Plus, in HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Danaerys’ three young dragons have so far merely been cute little lizards, but if the series continues to track George R.R. Martin’s books, they’ll get bigger and more threatening after the show returns for its third season on March 31. Fearsome creatures that cross cultures, dragons have made high-profile appearances in live-action and animated films for years:
Rob Cohen’s fantasy epic plays partly like a mismatched buddy comedy, only the reluctant partners turn out to be a monster-slaying knight (Dennis Quaid) who teams with the last remaining reptilian monster to fight a young tyrant (David Thewliss). The film cleverly casts Sean Connery as the cantankerous but dignified creature and the film features some occasionally inspired bursts of comedy: at one point the two protagonists have a stand-off, with the knight holding a sword while inside the dragon’s mouth. The film loses some credit by naming the dragon “Draco,” which sounds like the “John Smith” of dragon names.
The mythological beasts pay frequent visits to the Harry Potter series. The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, establishes Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid as a dragon enthusiast and introduces a cute hatchling named Norbert. The Goblet of Fire delivers a dandy battle scene between Harry and a bristling “Hungarian Horntail” as part of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. The best dragon, however, occurs when Harry and his pals attempt a heist from the wizard bank Gringott’s and discover a sightless albino dragon as a subterranean guard. Both a menacing creature and a pitiable one, the dragon conveys plentiful personality in brief screen time and provides the heroes with a spectacular getaway.
In one of cinema’s strangest post-apocalyptic scenarios, a brood of fire-breathing dragons hatch in contemporary London and proceed to lay waste to the planet, until a ragtag group of English survivors (including Christian Bale and Gerard Butler) and some American commandos (led by a whiskered Matthew McConaughey) team up to battle them in Northumberland. The dark, moody tone and squabbles between the humans keep the film from being as much fun as it should be, but the dragons provide a delightful bunch of old-school monsters who threaten mankind like a plague of devils. The film’s coolest image, of dragons incinerating London’s House of Parliament, is better captured in the poster than the actual movie.
Disney’s animated feature draws heavily from the Tchaikovsky ballet for a film that has the loveliness of a medieval tapestry, but not a lot of narrative punch. This changes at the end when Prince Philip comes to Sleeping Beauty’s rescue and the evil sorceress Maleficent transforms into a splendidly-designed dragon with a nifty black, purple and yellow color scheme and horns that match the witch’s headdress. Maleficent the dragon proved to be Disney’s scariest big-screen creation since the devil Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of 1940’s Fantasia.
Robert Zemeckis’ animated take on the epic poem suffers from some of the same Uncanny Valley issues as his previous “performance capture” film The Polar Express. Ironically, the marauder that dominates the film’s last act looks more realistic than most of the supporting humans. The underrated film deserves more attention than it received in release, primarily for its clever script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery, which provides some ingenious twists on the Old English epic. I won’t spoil the particulars, but warrior-turned-king Beowulf (Ray Winstone) turns out to have a relationship to the dragon, which lends the story some of the tragic complexity of Le Morte d’Arthur.
Japan’s line-up of kaiju monsters features several giant, fire-breathing reptiles, with Godzilla and the fire-breathing turtle Gamera arguably qualifying as dragons. Godzilla’s arch-nemesis, the invading alien King Ghidorah, features a design that harks back most directly to dragons of yore, and features three heads with crocodilian faces, a bifurcated tail, golden scales and a penchant for emitting lightning bolts at enemies. Appearing in a half-robotic version in 1991’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Ghidorah is probably the deadliest beast in all of Godzilla lore, and takes on all of his rivals in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters.
The central creature of this downbeat medieval adventure has unquestionably the best name of any movie dragon ever – “Vermithrax Pejorative” – and gets a terrific build-up. It ventures forth from a burning lake in ominous cave and feeds on a steady diet of sacrificial virgins chosen by a rigged lottery by the corrupt local monarch. An ill-fated village priest (Ian McDiarmid, Emperor Palpatine himself) accuses Vermithrax of being straight-up Satan and gets burned alive for his trouble. It’s a shame the well-intentioned movie surrounding the monstrosity doesn’t hold together better. It’s clearly inspired by Star Wars, but, as a sorcerer’s plucky apprentice, Peter MacNicol proves so callow, he makes Mark Hamill look like Harrison Ford. Nevertheless, the film features some shocking violence for a PG Disney movie, as well as undeniably cool design, including a 40 foot hydraulic dragon that conveys Vermithrax as old, dirty and hateful.
Ray Harryhausen spent decades as the mastermind of cinema’s stop-animation monsters, including dinosaurs and such dragon-like creations as the seven-headed hydra of Jason and the Argonauts. You couldn’t ask for a more classic take on a dragon than green, ridged beast from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which provides a fire-breathing obstacle for the hero, engages in a battle royal with a giant Cyclops and, in the film’s final moments, can only be stopped with a gargantuan crossbow. Harryhausen’s energetic behemoth has more personality than virtually any of the CGI dragons of recent years.
Culture includes a long tradition of cute monsters, from “Puff, The Magic Dragon” to Pete’s Dragon to kiddie show “Dragon Tales.” How To Train Your Dragon manages to have creatures that are both adorable and formidable. Arguably the best film produced to date from DreamWorks Animation, this loose adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s series features imaginatively designed, amusing creatures that still seem unquestionably dangerous, like the Gronkle, a chubby, wide-mouthed beast that hovers like a bumble bee. The feature film includes a bloated, Leviathan-sized horror called The Red Death, but possibly the franchise’s scariest creation is “The Boneknapper” from the sequel short of the same name. This massive marauder dresses itself in the skeletons of its victims, so pleasant dreams, kids!
Japan’s Studio Ghibli took a stab at Ursula LeGuin’s literary dragons, to mixed results, with 2011’s Tales of Earthsea, directed by Goro Miyazaki. The young filmmaker’s father, the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki, crafted a fascinating dragon character five years earlier with his Oscar-winning Spirited Away. When contemporary girl Chihiro becomes drawn into a supernatural realm, a dashing young prince-type named Haku comes to her aid. It turns out that Haku can transform into a dragon, with a long, sinuous neck, white fur and a lupine face, who takes Chihiro for a spectacular flight in one of Miyazaki’s signature air travel scenes. Chihiro proves to be Haku’s savior, helping him with stand a flock of deadly paper attackers and helping to restore his identity as a river spirit. Haku would be an interesting character even if he wasn’t a dragon: his non-human guise is gravy.